Banisters and More - Architecture Between the Rails

01
of 14

Contemporary Home, 21st Century

Living Room, Entryway, and Banisters
Living Room, Entryway, and Banisters. Photo by Image Studios/UpperCut Images/Getty Images

Remember when you were a kid and you slid down the banister, coming to an abrupt stop at the bottom of the stairs when you hit that newel post? Come to find out that technically it wasn't a banister at all. The word "banister" comes from the word baluster, which is really a pomegranate flower. Balusters are any variety of pomegranate-flower-shaped objects, including baluster vases and jugs. Are you confused yet?

A baluster is really a shape that became an architectural detail. "Baluster" has come to mean any brace between the handrail and footrail (or string) of a railing system. So, the banister is really the spindle, which would not be such a smooth ride sliding down the "baluster."

What do we call the whole railing system along a balcony or on the sides of stairways? The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) calls the handrail, footrail, and balusters all components of a balustrade, even though a balustrade is technically a series of balusters. Many people today call the whole system a banister and anything between the rails is a baluster.

Still confused? Flip through these photos to discover the history and possibilities. The room shown here seems so inviting and contemporary, yet its sense of order and decoration comes directly from the Renaissance era. Let's see how this room was designed by looking at some architectural history.

Source: Securing An Exterior Wooden Balustrade, U.S. General Services Administration, 11/05/2014 [accessed December 24, 2016]

02
of 14

Villa Medici a Poggio a Caiano, 15th Century

double flight of steps lead into Villa Medici in Poggio a Caiano, Italy
Villa Medici in Poggio a Caiano, Italy, 15th Century. Photo by Marco Ravenna / Archivio Marco Ravenna / Mondadori Portfolio / Hulton Fine Art Collection / Getty Images (cropped)

The baluster design used for architectural ornamentation is widely considered to have begun by Renaissance architects. One of the favorite architects of the wealthy patron Lorenzo de' Medici was Giuliano da Sangallo (1443-1516). A day trip from Florence, Italy will find you at a de' Medici summer estate in Poggio a Caiano. Completed c. 1520, Villa Medici boldly displays the "new" decorative railing of balusters, forming what is called a balustrade. The pediment held aloft by the thin Ionic columns makes this architecture a true renaissance or rebirth of the Classical styles once found in ancient Greece. The iron railings are probably from a different era. The double staircase was a Renaissance-era expression of symmetry, as the horizontal stone balustrade was a new idea in architecture. How similar it to the horizontal railing systems found along balconies today.

03
of 14

Palazzo Senatorio, 16th Century

Detail View of 16th Century Michelangelo-Designed Stairway of the Palazzo Senatorio on the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome, Italy
Detail View of 16th Century Michelangelo-Designed Stairway of the Palazzo Senatorio on the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome, Italy. Photo by Vincenzo Fontana / Corbis Historical / Getty Images (cropped)

The double or twin staircases to the Palazzo Senatorio in Rome, Italy c. 1580 are more grand than at Villa Medici. A closer look and you can see the difficult geometry of decorative balustrades. Michelangelo (1475-1564) designed these stairs and many of the other grand stairways leading to the Piazza del Campidoglio. Symmetry is achieved adjusting the square tops and base of the balusters, leaving the monumental stairways decorated with perfect stone balustrades. Built atop ancient Roman ruins, this Renaissance architecture signals the rebirth of Greek and Roman architectural traditions.

04
of 14

Villa Farnese Courtyard, 16th Century

The Renaissance-Era Villa Farnese Courtyard, c. 1560, in Caprarola, Italy by Vignola
The Renaissance-Era Villa Farnese Courtyard, c. 1560, in Caprarola, Italy by Vignola. Photo by Andrea Jemolo / Electa / Mondadori Portfolio / Hulton Fine Art Collection / Getty Images (cropped)

The celebration of Greek and Roman civilization is evident in the finishing design for Villa Farnese by Italian Renaissance architect Giacomo da Vignola (1507-1573). The twin stairways found on the facade of the villa is imitated by the double semicircular balustrades along the open gallery of this courtyard. With Roman arches and pilasters, Vignola was practicing what he was preaching.

Vignola is best known today as the author of the "specs" to Greek and Roman architecture. In 1563, Vignola documented Classical designs in the widely translated book The Five Orders of Architecture. In part, Vignola's book was a road map for much of the Renaissance architecture of the 1500s and 1600s.

Again, is the "open floor plan" of today's American home, with interior balconies protected with balustrades, so different from this 1560 villa in Caprarola, Italy?

05
of 14

Santa Trinita, 16th Century

The Marble Staircase of the Presbytery by Bernardo Buontalenti for the church of Santa Trinita in Florence, Italy, 1574
The Marble Staircase of the Presbytery by Bernardo Buontalenti for the church of Santa Trinita in Florence, Italy, 1574. Photo by Leemage / Corbis Historical / Getty Images (cropped)

Renaissance-era stone balusters had as many shape variations as do the wooden spindle balusters and posts that frequent our own homes. Architect and artist Bernardo Buontalenti (1531-1608), like Michelangelo, blended art and architecture by creating a folding softness to a marble stairway and a sense of fragility to the stone balusters he designed for the church of Santa Trinita in Florence, Italy, c. 1574.

06
of 14

Italian Renaissance Gardens

Terraced Italian Gardens added in the 18th century to a 16th century villa
Villa Della Porta Bozzolo in Lombardy, Italy. Photo by Sergio Anelli / Electa / Mondadori Portfolio / Hulton Fine Art Collection / Getty Images (cropped)

Country houses like the Villa Della Porta Bozzolo in northern Italy could turn a modest 16th century mansion into an elaborate estate just by adding an Italian Renaissance garden. Landscapes were often multi-level, designed with symmetry, and hardscaping that included balustrades to outline the terracing.
 

 

07
of 14

Chiswick House and Gardens, 18th Century

View looking down the entrance steps from the portico of Chiswick House in England
Chiswick House, London, an 18th Century Villa in the Style of Palladio. Photo by English Heritage / Heritage Images / Hulton Archive / Getty Images (cropped)

Garden balustrades, often accentuated with Classical objects such as Grecian urns, became popular in the country homes of wealthy Brits and the US elites. Chiswick House, built near London, England from 1725 to 1729, was specifically designed to imitate the architecture of Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio.
 

 

08
of 14

Monticello, 18th Century

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Charlottesville, Virginia Home
Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Charlottesville, Virginia Home. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/ Buyenlarge / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

While Europe was into the Renaissance, the New World was being discovered and settled. Skip ahead a few hundred years from the Italian Renaissance, and across the ocean a new country of unified states had formed. But the architects of Europe had made a lasting impression.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was so impressed with the Renaissance architecture he saw throughout Europe that he brought the Classical ideas back home with him. While serving as Minister to France from 1784 until 1789, Jefferson studied French and Roman architecture..He had begun his own country estate, Monticello, before he lived in France, but the design of Monticello was reborn when he returned to his home in Virginia. Monticello is now considered a fine example of Neoclassical architecture, with the pediment, the columns, and the balustrades.

Note the evolution of Classicism, however. This time period is not the Renaissance anymore. The worldly Jefferson has introduced a new baluster between the rails, one that is more reminiscent of Roman lattice and Chinese patterns. Some call the pattern Chinese Chippendale after the British furniture maker Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779). Jefferson did it all—balusters at one level and lattice designs on another. This was the new look of America.

09
of 14

Kenwood House, 18th Century

Decorative Iron Balusters on the Great Stairs, Kenwood House, Hampstead, London
The Great Stairs, Kenwood House, Hampstead, London. Photo English Heritage/Heritage Images / Hulton Archive / Getty Images (cropped)

Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728–1792) furthered Neoclassical design in his remodeling of Kenwood House near London. From 1764 to 1779, Adam incorporated elements of Britain's Industrial Revolution by creating decorative iron balusters set against hardwood flooring.

10
of 14

U.S. Custom House, 19th Century

Iron Railing and Balustrade at the U.S. Custom House, 1789, in Savannah, Georgia
Iron Railing and Balustrade at the U.S. Custom House, 1789, in Savannah, Georgia. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Archive Photos (cropped)

The idea of iron balusters made its way from London to Savannah, Georgia into the 1852 U.S. Custom House. Like the many shapes of stone balusters, the iron spindles or grillwork come in variations of decorative patters. New York architect John S. Norris (1804-1876) designed the Savannah building to be fireproof and the decorative balusters to be symbolic. The cast iron spindles inside and outside this government building carry the motif of a closed tobacco leaf and fleur-de-lis.

Source: U.S. Custom House, Savannah, GA, U.S. General Services Administration [accessed December 24, 2016]

11
of 14

Bramley Baths, 20th Century

Rails and Iron Balusters Overlooking the 1904 Public Bramley Baths in Leeds, England
Rails and Iron Balusters Overlooking the 1904 Public Bramley Baths in Leeds, England. Photo by Christopher Furlong / Getty Images News / Getty Images

The Bramley Baths, a public pool and bath house in Leeds, England, was built in 1904, which makes it late Victorian by design and Edwardian in construction. Decorative balusters along the balcony that surrounds the swimming pool are are both modern looking and imitative of the curve of a wave. Architectural balustrades may have been invented in the Renaissance, but architects keep revising traditional baluster designs to fit the times. Although the iron ornamentation at Bramley doesn't look much like the stone carvings at Palazzo Senatorio, we still call them both balusters.

 

12
of 14

Hôtel de Bullion, 20th Century

Iron grillwork detail at Hôtel de Bullion (Folie Thoinard de Vougy), 9 rue Coq-Héron. Paris
Hôtel de Bullion (Folie Thoinard de Vougy), 9 rue Coq-Héron. Paris. Photo by Eugene Atget/George Eastman House / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

And then the balusters weren't vertical anymore.The 1909 Hôtel de Bullion in Paris, France displays decorative wrought-iron grillwork balustrades designed in the popular art nouveau style. Far from the vertical orientation of the Renaissance baluster shape, the historic precedent for this Parisian ornamentation may be the Roman lattice.

13
of 14

Roman Lattice

The National Library of Greece, 1829, with Roman Lattice Style Railings
The National Library of Greece, 1829, with Roman Lattice Style Railings. Photo by Ayhan Altun / Moment / Getty Images (cropped)

When the capital of the Roman Empire moved to what is present-day Turkey in the 6th century, architecture became an interesting blend of East meets West. Roman architecture integrated a healthy dose of Middle Eastern design, including the traditional mashrabiya, a projecting window hidden by decorative and functional lattice. Roman architects like the design of repetitive geometric patterns—triangles and squares became a pattern familiar to buildings we may call Neoclassical today.

"Terms used to describe it include trellis, transenna, latticework, Roman lattice, grating, and grille," says architecture historian Calder Loth. The distinctive design exists today, not only in windows but also between the rails, as seen here at the entrance to the The National Library of Greece, built in 1829 in Athens. Compare this design with the balcony balustrade used in the 1822 Arlington plantation house in Birmingham, Alabama. It's the same pattern.

Source: Classical Comments: Roman Lattice by Calder Loth, Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources [accessed December 24, 2016]

14
of 14

Arlington Antebellum Home & Gardens

Large, 2 story white plantation home, with two chimneys and Roman lattice on the second story balcony
Arlington Antebellum Home and Gardens in Birmingham, Alabama. Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images (cropped)

The balcony of the 1822 Antebellum Home in Birmingham, Alabama has a rail of geometric lattice. This Neoclassic design from the Roman Empire may be considered older than the Renaissance-era balustrade, yet it, too, is called a balustrade.

Sometimes in architectural history the words just get in the way of classic design.